Net neutrality is finally real. Will you notice?

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to enforce net neutrality rules, requiring broadband providers to treat all data on their networks equally. The net neutrality rules will ban Internet 'fast lanes' and 'slow lanes,' as well as the throttling of Internet traffic.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday morning to enforce strong net neutrality rules. Here, the three Democratic Commissioners (L-R) Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, and Jessica Rosenworcel, get settled before the start of the hearing.

On Thursday morning, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to enforce strong "net neutrality" rules, requiring broadband Internet providers to deliver lawful content to customers without regard for the source of that content.

In other words, the FCC now has the authority to ensure that broadband providers (such as Comcast or Verizon) cannot discriminate against certain content providers (such as Netflix or YouTube) in favor of others, and that content providers cannot pay broadband providers to deliver their data to customers faster.

The measure passed on a party-line vote, with the three Democratic commissioners approving the motion and the two Republican commissioners – including Ajit Pai, who has harshly criticized the plan on the grounds that it expands the federal government’s authority over the Internet – dissenting.

The net neutrality proposal reclassifies wired and wireless broadband providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, rather than as Title I “information service providers,” which is what they’ve been for the last decade. The FCC has more authority over common carriers than over information service providers, and can mandate that they treat all content flowing over their networks more or less equally.

Now that net neutrality protections are real, what do they mean for you? First, the FCC can now ensure that the Internet doesn’t develop into a “fast lane” for those companies able to pay extra and a “slow lane” for everyone else. That’s important for start-up companies and small online businesses, who don’t want to be priced out of being able to access potential customers. One example of such a business is online craft marketplace Etsy, whose chief executive officer Chad Dickerson testified before the FCC’s vote that Etsy merchants need net neutrality to ensure that customers can find their homemade products as easily as those of larger businesses.

Net neutrality also means that your Internet Service Provider can’t make it harder or easier for you to access certain services. Back in 2008, Comcast throttled traffic originating from the BitTorrent file-sharing application on the grounds that this traffic was taking up too much bandwidth on its networks. This sort of ISP behavior would now be illegal, since providers must deliver whatever legal content and services their customers ask for. Furthermore, ISPs can’t give preferential treatment to some services over others – say, by capping the speed of your Netflix stream but giving a competing video service unlimited bandwidth.

At its core, the net neutrality decision means that all online traffic must be treated the same. As Commissioner Mignon Clyburn put it in her remarks before the vote, “All bits are treated equally. This is essential to the free market.”

The FCC’s decision won’t radically reshape the Internet, especially since the Commission has said that it won’t regulate Internet subscription prices and won’t require ISPs to lease their networks to competitors. But this decision goes a long way toward ensuring that the Internet remains a level playing field where companies can compete fairly and succeed, or fail, on their own merits.

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